Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet

Save the Swamp -- Block the Mine

Mining companies have been extracting titanium dioxide from southern Georgia and northern Florida for decades without attracting much attention from environmentalists. But Du Pont's plan to begin a new mining operation in a three-mile-wide, 30-mile-long strip along the eastern boundary of Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has the local Sierra Club chapter sounding the alarm.

"The risk is too great and the resource too irreplaceable," said Judy Jennings, Georgia Chapter issue leader. "The mining process is physically invasive and water-intensive and could have adverse impacts on the quality and flow of water in and around the refuge." The swamp is the headwaters of the Suwannee and the St. Mary's rivers. The St. Mary divides Georgia and Florida.

The Okefenokee is a biologically rich ecosystem -- a vast bog inside a huge saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The refuge encompasses 438,000 acres, 80 percent of which is designated wilderness. It is home to endangered and threatened species including the wood stork, the red cockaded woodpecker, the indigo snake and the parrot pitcher plant. It is also one of the last strongholds of the Florida black bear.

Du Pont plans to dig open pits and then, using water and gravity, separate the heavier titanium oxide -- which is used for white pigment in paint and paper -- from the lighter sandy soil. The company has said that early next year it will apply for surface mining and water discharge permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency and a dredge-and-fill permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1998. The mining could begin within six years and continue into the latter half of the 21st century.

Florida volunteer Linda Bremer of the Club's Environmental Strategy Team said that a 1990 spill of contaminants at an older Du Pont mine in northern Florida killed fish and created health problems for downstream residents. "If they open a new mine along the refuge border, the entire ecosystem of the Okefenokee could be irrevocably altered, from its air quality to the groundwater," she said.

Utahns Nervous Over Nerve-Gas Burn Plant

The U.S. Army's plan to burn chemical weapons at the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility in Utah has Club members on red alert. Less than three days after the Army started burning nerve gas-bearing rockets, a leak was detected in the incinerator, causing the facility to be shut down. A second shutdown was ordered in September after another leak was detected.

"This is not a safe way to dispose of chemical weapons," said Cindy King, Utah Chapter vice chair. "There is no monitoring of the facility from regulatory officials. We're also concerned about the effects on public health of long-term, low-level release of these chemicals and other by-products of the burn, including heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs."

The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit in May to prevent the Army from using incineration to destroy chemical weapons. The burning began in August shortly after the court denied a preliminary injunction. Another hearing is scheduled for January in state court. King warned that operational problems, such as leaks and explosions, that plagued a similarly designed incinerator at Johnstons Atoll in the South Pacific could occur at the Tooele facility. "The release of a minute amount of nerve or blister agent could injure or kill residents and wildlife living near the incinerator," she said. Eighty percent of Utahns live within 60 miles of the site.

Planners have scheduled to run the facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next seven years in order to destroy the 14,000 tons of chemical agents stored there -- 44 percent of the U.S. stockpile earmarked for incineration. Tooele is the first of eight planned chemical-weapons incineration sites in the United States. Opponents of the Tooele facility argue that there are safer options to incineration. The Army could use one of the three Environmental Protection Agency-approved, commercially available, "closed-loop" alternative technologies to destroy the weapons. The added advantage to these methods is that all are "mobile" technologies where the companies come in, set up and destroy the weapons. They would cost $30 million to $40 million, a fraction of the $650 million already spent at Tooele. President Clinton has ordered a study to assess alternative disposal methods.

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